In 2022, Eater is highlighting some of Atlanta’s oldest restaurants and food institutions through a series of photo essays, profiles, and personal stories. The restaurants featured this year are a mix of longtime familiar favorites and less well-known venerable establishments serving a wide variety of cuisines and communities in Atlanta and the surrounding metro area. These restaurants serve as the foundation of the Atlanta dining scene, and continue to stand the test of time here.
Located on Cheshire Bridge Road, Nakato is considered Atlanta’s oldest Japanese restaurant. First opened in 1972, this year marks its 50th anniversary. The family-owned and operated business once served as the unofficial ambassador to Japan for Georgia, helping court Japanese businesses to open in the state during Jimmy Carter’s time as governor. Now on its third generation owner, Nakato continues its role as ambassador, adapting a family legacy and commitment to Japanese hospitality in Atlanta for the 21st century.
At 13 years old, Sachiyo “Sachi” Nakato Takahara was already helping out on Friday and Saturday nights at her family’s Japanese restaurant, Nakato. She loved the energy of those peak restaurant hours and leaned into the adrenaline rush she got from always having to be on her toes. Two servers took notice one night, each giving her a dollar in the kitchen after service.
That first vivid memory working at Nakato stuck with Takahara, even after 17 years of owning and operating the restaurant her grandmother founded in 1972. She’s now the third generation of the family to manage Nakato, which over five decades in Atlanta has both adjusted and preserved elements of the restaurant to continue growing the business to safeguard its future.
Takahara’s grandmother, Tetsuko Nakato, opened the restaurant in Atlanta in part because of the Southern hospitality she experienced here while visiting the U.S. It was during Jimmy Carter’s governorship in the 1970s when the Nakato family was called upon to help attract Japanese businesses to Georgia. Carter was launching a trade and tourism outpost in Japan and establishing a Japanese consulate in Atlanta. According to Tahakara, he invited the Nakato family to the governor’s mansion to perform a traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a cultural exchange. The Carters, along with their young daughter Amy, also dined at the restaurant.
Though the circumstances surrounding Nakato’s founding offered an opportunity, its timing came with unique challenges. Back when the restaurant first opened in Atlanta, it was difficult to source ingredients integral to traditional Japanese cuisine. Harder still was finding Japanese-trained chefs who could properly prepare these dishes. The family invited a team of chefs from Japan to work at Nakato who applied the necessary skills and techniques needed using the available ingredients found in Georgia. Some of those chefs went on to open their own restaurants, including Hashiguchi in Marietta and Kobe Steakhouse in Atlanta, ultimately helping to grow the Japanese dining scene here.
When Takahara’s mother, Hiroe Nakato, took over the business, her goal was to grow Nakato further, and the 1996 Summer Olympics presented yet another unique opportunity for the family, as the world’s eyes turned to Atlanta. Hiroe Nakato, along with husband Kiyo Takahara, brought in an architect and carpenter certified to work on renovating and building Japanese temples to create the restaurant’s traditional tatami rooms. They also added a Japanese tea room, where the restaurant hosts weekly tea ceremony lessons and apprenticeships.
As Nakato continued evolving over the years, says Takahara, so did the palates of diners in Atlanta.
“My mom always jokes that sushi was considered fish bait around this neck of the woods in the ‘70s. It’s come a long way,” she says.
Today, the restaurant receives its fish directly from Japan multiple times a week. People who initially gravitated toward sushi rolls in the 1970s and 1980s, now expect more variety on the menu, including sashimi, tempura, and gindara grilled fish packaged as one entree. Under Takahara, the restaurant began offering sake and sake pairing dinners conducted by one of the certified sake advisors on staff.
But, like all restaurants, Nakato had to adapt to an increasingly digital landscape and the rapid rise in tech-savvy diners; much of this adaptation has occurred during Takahara’s tenure. She traded in the physical book of written reservations for OpenTable, swapped out print ads for digital space, and started using third-party delivery services for online orders.
“My parents’ generation and my grandmother’s generation [are] immigrant family settings, so they’re trying to…do something well, on repeat, over and over again,” Takahara says. “But for me, it was how I can take it to the next level where it’s the digital age and [there’s] technology that we have to implement.”
Through the pandemic, Takahara finds herself again adapting to shifts in people’s expectations, like wanting more menu transparency and an authentic dining experience. Atlanta diners, she says, now want to know where their food is coming from and how it’s prepared, a new and modern demand which has Takahara placing greater emphasis on ingredient sourcing.
For Takahara, being the third-generation owner of Nakato presents both a challenge and an opportunity to translate Japanese culture and traditions as well as the work of past generations in new ways. With fewer barriers to contend with than family who came before her, including language and technology, Takahara says she acts as a “cultural liaison” for Nakato, helping people understand and connect with traditional Japanese cuisine and culture at the restaurant.
Something that hasn’t changed in the five decades since Takahara’s grandmother opened Nakato is the restaurant’s commitment to “omotenashi,” a Japanese word which loosely translates to hospitality. It’s the driving force behind the restaurant, Takahara says.
“I remember my father standing at the host area and always giving a big welcome and a handshake to every guest that came in,” Takahara says. “That [hospitality] has constantly been ingrained into me through my parents’ generation and hearing stories about my grandmother.”
Like her parents and grandmother, Takahara prioritizes this style of hospitality at Nakato, training staff to identify and anticipate needs, like bringing the check out quickly when parents are struggling with fidgety children at the end of a meal or flipping a guest’s shoes the right way around in the tatami room so they can easily slide them on before leaving. Takahara says she tries to extend omotenashi to her employees, too, some of whom have been with Nakato for 25 years.
Takahara believes an ardent commitment to Japanese hospitality, along with positioning Nakato as a “one-stop Japanese restaurant,” offering everything from teppanyaki to sushi, helped establish a loyal customer base for Nakato throughout its five decades in business. That loyalty also helped Nakato and its staff endure some of the toughest months in business during the pandemic.
“It’s a question that I ask almost every day since the pandemic started: How are we so blessed?” Takahara says.
For Hiroe Nakato, Takahara’s mother, she’s proud of the fact “that we’ve made it this far,” since that first day back in 1972. Like her mother, Takahara hopes her own children can align their passions and pursuits with the vision behind Nakato to help continue the family business and add to its legacy in Atlanta.
“I do want them taking care of the business in one way, shape or another,” Takahara says, “and I think it’s my responsibility to be able to grow it to where they can do that for us.”
Open daily from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations encouraged. Order online for takeout or delivery. Public transit information: Nakato is accessible via MARTA buses #27 and #809. If traveling by train, take bus #809 from Lindbergh MARTA station.
Disclaimer: Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; it may pose a risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial COVID transmission. The latest CDC guidance is here; find a COVID-19 vaccination site here. It is highly advised people wear masks indoors or when in crowded situations, regardless of vaccination status, to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.